How the R&D Tax Credit Has Expanded to Foster Innovation?

R&D Tax Credit


Deborah Roth, CPA
July 28, 2023

Governments across the globe have long recognized the significance of research and development (R&D) in driving economic growth and fostering innovation within the private sector. In the United States, the federal R&D tax credit, initially introduced in 1981 as a temporary measure, has evolved into a critical tool for incentivizing businesses to invest in R&D activities. Over the years, the R&D tax credit underwent significant changes, with the most transformative being brought about by the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015, which not only made the credit permanent but also expanded its provisions to include previously excluded entities.

The rapid pace of technological advancements in recent decades has propelled companies into a continuous cycle of innovation. During each stage of development, businesses encounter technical challenges in creating new products, improving existing ones, optimizing trade processes, and integrating innovations with their current assets. Conquering these hurdles is essential for a company's long-term success, but the process is often costly, time-consuming, and carries the risk of failed investments.

The federal R&D tax credit, also known as the Research and Experimentation (R&E) tax credit, was conceived as a means to reward U.S. companies for increasing their R&D investments in a given tax year. Initially, the credit was available to any business attempting to develop new or technologically advanced products or trade processes, as well as those making improvements to existing ones. While widely viewed as favorable, certain limitations hindered its full applicability and utilization for specific taxpayers.

In December 2015, President Obama signed the PATH Act into law, making the R&D tax credit a permanent fixture in the tax code. This legislation addressed the credit's limitations and opened up new avenues for businesses to benefit from the incentive.

Two critical changes were introduced by the PATH Act, applicable for tax years beginning after December 31, 2015. The first significant change allowed small businesses to utilize the R&D tax credit against their alternative minimum tax (AMT) liability. This modification removed a long-standing hurdle for eligible small businesses (ESBs), defined as corporations, partnerships, or sole proprietorships with average annual gross receipts not exceeding $50 million for the preceding three taxable years.

The second pivotal change pertained to startup businesses. It enabled startups with no federal tax liability and gross receipts below $5 million to take the R&D tax credit against their payroll taxes, effectively making it a refundable credit capped at $250,000 for up to five years.

Effective from January 1, 2016, ESBs could use the R&D tax credit to offset AMT, while qualified small businesses (QSB) could offset the FICA employer portion of their payroll tax. A QSB is a business with annual gross receipts of less than $5 million and a business that had gross receipts for no more than five years (Note: This option only applies for 2016 and does not extend to companies with gross receipts before 2012).

The R&D tax credit is not limited to a specific set of industries but encompasses various activities that drive growth and progress:

  • Creating improved products, processes, formulas, software, and techniques.
  • Automating or enhancing internal manufacturing processes.
  • Designing tools, jigs, fixtures, and molds.
  • Integrating new equipment.
  • Developing data centers, big data, and data mining tools.
  • Integrating APIs and other technologies.
  • Creating financial or pricing models.
  • Hiring outside consultants to perform any of the listed activities.
  • Manufacturing new or improved products.
  • Developing prototypes, first articles, and models.
  • Evaluating alternative materials.
  • Developing firmware.
  • Network hardware and software development and optimization.
  • Developing simulators.
  • Developing risk management systems.
  • Exploring ways to apply new research findings.
  • Streamlining manufacturing processes.
  • Utilizing integration analysis.

The potential benefits of the R&D tax credit are substantial. On average, companies can claim 7-10% of their qualified expenses as a federal R&D tax credit. For instance, a single software developer, engineer, or lab technician earning $100,000 per year could generate tax savings of up to $10,000.

If your business is committed to improving and enhancing products and processes to remain competitive and profitable, it likely qualifies for R&D tax credits. Embracing this incentive could be the catalyst that drives your business to greater heights of innovation and success.

continue reading

Common Challenges When Claiming R&D Tax Credits

Although claiming this credit can offer considerable benefits for companies engaged in R&D efforts, the process can be challenging.

read on

No Profits, No Problem: R&D Tax Credits Can Help Your Startup

Running a startup is all about innovation and making the most of your resources. But what if you're not yet turning a profit?

read on

What Happens to Unused R&D Tax Credits?

What happens if you don’t use all your credits in a single year? Don’t worry! The US tax code has you covered.

read on